Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Systemization of Art in Teaching Artistry
April 12, 2013, 10:48 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I’ve been a teaching artist since 1999. I’ve worked for a large percentage of the arts organizations in New York City. I’ve worked in every borough at every grade level. I’ve taught in around 300 schools. This is how I make my living: I go to schools, I teach workshops and residencies and various arts organizations pay me to do it. While my hourly rate can sound impressive, the laws of time, space and arts funding are such that it is impossible to teach all the time. Most of the hours I work as a teaching artist are unpaid, e.g. the hours of commute time to the school, the lesson planning, the scheduling, the paperwork, etc. Trying to put together a full time load of Teaching Artistry (which for me usually works out to working for three to four arts organizations at a time) is a serious task and not a lucrative one. The most money I have ever made in a year was $24,000 and that was only once in a very good year. I do not have health insurance and am regularly unemployed. The value of this career, for me, lies in the way this path gives me a bit of time and space to make my own work in the theatre. Its primary value is its flexibility. That is also its primary flaw.

I tell you this, not because I particularly need to reveal the practicalities of how I put together a living, but because I am concerned about the trend toward the standardization of Teaching Artistry. I have met, in the last few months, several students in Teaching Artist Certification programs, students who are presumably shelling out a lot of cash and time and maybe taking on student loans to become Teaching Artists. They are doing this, I assume, to get the sorts of jobs I have and have had for 14 years. I’m worried about them and the field. Is it responsible to send flocks of students out into the field where there isn’t work for them? In all my travels, I have never met a teaching artist who trained to be a teaching artist.

I met with a career counselor a few years ago and she asked me if there was a way to progress in my field, “Was there” she asked’ “a higher position to aspire to?” And the answer was no. I was, at that point, already sitting at the top. I was teaching for some of the most reputable arts organizations in the city, getting paid the top hourly rate. Maybe there are better, more secure, higher positions than mine that are secretly hiding somewhere but as far as I can see (and I think I see the field pretty clearly) there is no better position than the one I have. And I am barely scraping by with 14 years of experience, many glowing recommendations and a load of lesson plans under my belt. What on earth are these freshly certified teaching artists going to do? Has anyone teaching these people thought about this? Are they coming after my jobs? They might be. And they might get them.

This move toward standardizing is happening inside the field, too. When I began, a teaching artist was an Artist who went into a school and shared his or her Art. We learned on the job, wrote our lesson plans on scraps of paper and shared our triumphs and failures with our colleagues. We had the occasional “Professional Development” where we shared exercises and ideas or learned a new skill. It was uneven, sure, but each artist brought a piece of themselves to the process and created unique unquantifiable experiences for students (which is not all that different from the experience of art in my opinion.)

As time has gone by, our lesson plans have had to become, at first, written to be shared with administrators then shared in a particular format or structure, then, required to include standards and blueprints and long lists of other educational jargon. The most recent lesson plan I had to do was a 15 page document, for which I had to invent a great many educational buzzword sentences. None of which are of any use to me in the practice of actual teaching. I write these documents and rarely look at them again. These developments have led teaching ARTISTRY to something more like TEACHING artistry. Our professional development is now about how to make better lesson plans, how to talk about assessment, how to teach specialized populations. I can’t remember the last time I learned an actually useful exercise from a fellow teaching artist at one of these things.

I understand why it’s happening. I’ve filled out city funding applications for my own work; The paperwork is the sort of quantifiable evidence stuff that funders, bureaucrats and the Department of Education want, so that they can get more funding for the arts in schools. From an administrative point of view, all this stuff is a series of boxes to check off and the arts organizations just need to do it to make sure they keep getting those dollars.

The extra work for the teaching artists is no real burden to arts administrators, they just have the unenviable job of telling us about it. It is however, a real burden to an artist like me. I don’t get paid any more than I did when I started and the work looks more and more like the work of a classroom teacher. In fact, a classroom teacher recently sent me her unit plan and I was shocked to discover how much crossover there was in what she had to set down and what I had to set down. It’s turning into the same language. This may be why this move toward certifying Teaching Artists is happening. It’s perfectly logical that you train people in this educational jargon if they’re going to have to speak it.

But here’s the thing: a classroom teacher is paid a salary (not a BIG one, unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another time,) receives benefits and generally has the support of a union, her/his fellow teachers and the weight of an entire system behind him/her, as well as job security. A teaching artist has no benefits, no salary, no guarantee of work, no job security and no one to turn to if s/he is treated poorly. One new program manager who takes a dislike to you can lose you your job or severely limit the classes you’re brought in to teach. If there is a downturn in Arts funding in the school’s budgets, you might not get work at all.

It is not a sensible job. You have to be able to roll with the unpredictable elements of schedules, of teachers, of schools, of classrooms, the sometimes epic commutes, the revolving door of arts managers, the fact that you’re essentially on your own out there, the months of unemployment, the delicate schedule juggling (especially tricky when balancing one arts organization’s demands with another.) This gig requires an EPIC amount of flexibility. It takes a kind of artistry to manage in a world of ever changing circumstances and it is not the sort of world that responds well to systemization.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do it myself and maybe, given the way that the field is changing, I’m becoming a bit of a dinosaur and my breed will soon be extinct. But before that happens, I want to make plea for someone, somewhere to just THINK about what’s happening here. I’ve always thought that one of my principal roles in the classroom as a Teaching Artist is to provide an OUTSIDE perspective. The best Teaching Artists get described as a breath of fresh air, a challenge to the day to day, a way to see the world differently, a welcome change of pace. I think our work is at its best when we are NOT like a classroom teacher, when we bring all of the anarchic energy of art to a room full of people used to a particular perspective.
If we continue to push toward more standardization, toward teaching artists being like teachers, but with art, we lose the very value of the position. And listen, if that’s where the field is going, okay. But if it’s going there, if teaching artists are going to become certified and systematized, I hope, at least, that these new TAs will get the benefits of being part of a system. They’ll need guarantees of work, benefits, a salary. If this stuff doesn’t happen with those changes, then the system has just created a clever way to outsource arts teachers.

I have given up security, salary and health insurance to have a career that allows me to be an artist. The certified teaching artists coming up behind us will likely not even have that. It’s a much different world than when I started back in the age of the dinosaurs and I’m worried that there’s an ice age coming and all the dinosaurs will go and it will be a very long time until anyone finds our bones.

11 Comments so far
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Hi! I follow your blog and this one is particularly poignant!!! My husband has been a Teaching Artist and wants to recommend a book that will give you an insight into what’s really been going on in our school system. It’s written by a former, New York teacher who was awarded Teacher of the Year, Twice!!! But he is a serious rogue scholar…Har!! Har!! You can look him up on the internet to find out more about him I just want to say that as an Artist, I feel you, I feel you, I feel you!!! The Book is called: “Weapons of Mass Instruction,” by John Taylor Gatto Sincerely, Alicia and John Thomas

Date: Sat, 13 Apr 2013 03:48:28 +0000 To:

Comment by margindancerdaze

Thanks so much Alicia and John Thomas! I’d read a few articles by Gatto a while back but didn’t realize there was a book. I look forward to reading it! Thanks!

Comment by erainbowd

This post fascinates me, and makes me think and question lots of things related to what I know about teaching artistry. I’m drawn to the idea of a balance between teaching and artistry, the two words that make up the name for this hybrid field. I do a lot of arts integration work, where I strive for a balance between theatre skills goals and curricular goals. I wonder if the same is true of teaching artists- and if it’s up to the individual TA to decide what percentage of teaching and artistry works for them? I am also concerned by the standardization factor because its similar to standardizing art. Teaching artistry is an art, so it could be dangerous to standardize it. But if certification programs are what are going to “legitimize” this as a profession, then, as you said, the benefits better be out there! It’s so tricky. Thank you for articulating your thoughts. It helps me muddle through my own!

Comment by Meredyth Pederson

Thanks so much for this Meredyth. While I was thinking of some local NYC certification students when I wrote this, I did wonder what your experience might be, too. You were definitely on my mind! Keep me posted on your journey, I’d love to know where it takes you and what you discover once you head back out into the world!

Comment by erainbowd

This is the first I am hearing of certification programs for Teaching Artists! What?! That is like a cert program for being a waitress. Except as a waitress you make more money.

I’m not saying TA’s shouldn’t receive training, and grow their skills in becoming bad ass teachers of art, but certifying something where, as you point out, “there is no higher position to aspire to.” ? Give me a cert program for a decent paying job teaching art in public schools and I am all there.

Comment by zimmesa

oh, nevermind, there are cert programs for being a food server. well there you have it.

Comment by zimmesa

I did notice that the certification for food services is, like, $24. So if you’re going to do a certification that’s not going to get you work, it should at least cost you less than a night out!

Comment by erainbowd

I struggle with u. It infuriates me as well that someone is making money off TAs getting certified. Sure we need to grow our skills and that can cost, but why charge people so much who are going into fields that don’t make much?! Just like ex actors making money off of teaching actors. Gross.

Comment by BBS

There’s something similar bur more stratehic going on in the niche of “Jewish experiential education.” The research in the field and in community engagement studies showed that camp, outdoor, service learning and food/farm programs were most impactful. Major foundations have flushed the field with highly subsidized Masters and cert programs AND built full-time full-year positions, collaborations between summer camps and schools, establishing year long in school and experiential ed positions. This has all evolved in the last 10 years. I’m surprised the NY arts world is professional is in with the strategic investment in steady positions in the field.

Comment by Scott Dinsmore

Wow! This is an old blog post but I just stumbled upon it and I can relate to it so much. Teaching artist since 1999, but in California. I don’t know where to begin I have so much to say, but I taught at 3 schools and a dance studio today and just got my kids to bed!! More to come.. . thank you for speaking out

Comment by cybeledancemom

You’re welcome! I’m so glad it spoke to you! Hope you got some rest after the day you had!

Comment by erainbowd

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